Analysis finds COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in Arizona

That wasn’t the case in other states where governors enacted strict anti-coronavirus measures

By: - October 25, 2021 9:25 am
covid-19 coronavirus doctor patient ICU

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A new report found that COVID-19 was the leading cause of death in Arizona during the pandemic, unlike in other similar states that had more aggressive mitigation measures. 

More than 20,700 people have died from the virus since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. The report, by the Arizona Public Health Association, examined how those deaths compared to the 15 leading causes of death between March 17, 2020 — the date a state of emergency was declared because of COVID-19 — to Oct. 14, 2021. 

The report compared that to mortality data from the Centers for Disease Control’s Wonder Online Database in 2019, as detailed data for 2020 is still not available. The researchers noted that data for certain mortality rates have remained relatively constant over the past decade, the report states. 

Heart disease has long been the top cause of death for Arizonans, taking the lives of over 12,500 Arizona residents in 2019, followed closely by cancer, which trailed heart disease by a mere 84 deaths. 

COVID-19 cases reached their first peak in Arizona on June 29, when 5,480 cases were reported. Just a few weeks later on, July 17, Arizona would report its single highest reported death count for the virus at the time: 107 deaths. 

As the summer months ended amid more mitigation measures implemented by Gov. Doug Ducey, cases fell and so did deaths. By October, cases began rising again, accelerating rapidly in November.

On Nov. 23, the state reported more than 6,000 cases, the most it had ever seen in a single day, and intensive care unit capacity was dwindling. The numbers then skyrocketed in December and early January, and the state repeatedly broke records for the number of confirmed cases and deaths: 

  • Nov. 30, 7,971 cases reported
  • Dec. 21, 9,078 cases reported 
  • Dec. 28, 11,533 cases reported
  • Jan. 4, 11,929 cases reported 
  • Dec. 10, 107 deaths reported
  • Dec. 17, 130 deaths reported
  • Jan. 5, 137 deaths reported

According to the research by APHA, Arizona’s death rate is also much higher than some of it’s similarly sized states. 

Researchers compared Arizona to two different states that have similar population sizes: Colorado and Washington. 

Washington has a population that is the most similar to Arizona, but researchers found the state had reported 8,234 deaths, only two-thirds of the number of deaths here. Colorado has about 1.5 million fewer people than Arizona, and saw only 7,917 COVID deaths during the same time frame. 

Arizona, Colorado and Washington had similar rates for other causes of death.

“You can split hairs on the demographics, but the big differences are the policy changes,” Will Humble, executive director of APHA and a former director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, told the Arizona Mirror when asked if comparing the states was a fair comparison. 

Humble said that the report showed that Arizona’s failure to enact tougher COVID-19 mitigation policies led the pandemic to be worse — and more people to die — than in Washington and Colorado. Both of those states enacted mandatory masking, and in Washington, all public employees are now mandated to get the vaccine

“They have thoughtful governors who put forward evidence-based policies,” Humble said. 

Ducey’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

Ducey’s stance on masking has made him a target of political advocacy groups who have deemed him “anti-science” for his approach to the pandemic. Ducey has also continued to fight with cities and towns over their authority to mandate vaccines for workers, threatening contempt and legal charges.  

“While we aren’t in a position to review this report’s methodology and thus comment on its assertions, we’ll note that ADHS has consistently recommended that Arizonans use masks, distancing and other mitigation measures to protect themselves from COVID-19, as per CDC guidance,” Steve Elliot, communications director for AzDHS said in a statement to the Mirror about the report. 

“Arizona enacted strong measures involving high-risk businesses such as gyms, bars, movie theaters, and water parks. Bars that couldn’t operate as dine-in restaurants had to remain closed until conditions warranted lifting those restrictions. Masks and occupancy restrictions were some of the mitigation measures required for these high-risk establishments, with ADHS maintaining a complaint and inspection system to follow-up on reports of noncompliance.”

To Humble, the report he and his colleague authored proves a point. That COVID in Arizona will continue to spread to those who chose to not protect themselves and that mitigation measures are the best approach. 

“The length of that line represents people that are no longer here,” Humble said, referring to a red line in the report representing COVID deaths.

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Jerod MacDonald-Evoy
Jerod MacDonald-Evoy

Reporter Jerod MacDonald-Evoy joined the Arizona Mirror from the Arizona Republic, where he spent 4 years covering everything from dark money in politics to Catholic priest sexual abuse scandals. He brings strong watchdog sensibilities and creative storytelling skills to the Arizona Mirror.